Willian Blake and Elizabeth Barret Browning are both prominent poets whose works have had a major influence on countless artists and writers. As a 19th century writer, William Blake was regarded a highly influential writer of the Romantic era. Blake was a radical and nonconformist thinker who asserted that ideal forms should be constructed from inner visions as opposed to the construction of ideal forms from the observations of nature. Although Blake wanted his poems to be read and understood by ordinary people, he did not want to sacrifice his vision for popularity (Bentley18). It is worth noting that Blake was largely unappreciated during his lifetime. This is different from the case of Browning who was highly recognized because of her great poems such as ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ and ‘Aurora Leigh’. As a poet in the Victorian era, she was very popular in the United States and Britain during her lifetime. Browning’s ideas on slavery and feminism in her poem, ‘The Runway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’, depict the oppressive practices of the Victorian era (Mermin 47). Similarly, Blake’s ideas in his poems indicate that he was critical of the unjust social systems during his lifetime. Throughout their lifetimes, Blake and Browning considered slavery and discrimination along racial lines as a curse.
Both Blake and Browning expressed concerns about the use of oppressive practices during the industrial revolution. Blake considered the use of child labor as inappropriate since this barbaric practice was a threat to the innocence of children. In his poem, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, Blake’s view on the matter of child labor is expressed. The poet captures the suffering of the working children. The boy speaking in the poem was sold to a chimney-sweeping business after his mother died (Blake 81). This boy together with his friend Tom was forced by circumstances to get into a hazardous occupation despite their young age. Tom’s dream shows how the rich and those in power used promised future freedom to subdue the vulnerable in the society including little children. Notably, the tone of the poem is optimistic and idealistic yet there is an underlying taste of cruel reality within the tone. In this poem, Blake critiques the inability of the society and its religious aspect to offer aid to these suffering children in the chimney-sweeping business. Additionally, he critiques the deplorable conditions under which these children are working. As such, Blake condemns the pictures of suffering and darkness in the poem that seem to sweep away childhood innocence.
In the same way, Browning used poems to protest slavery, which was rampant during the industrial revolution. She portrays her feelings towards this injustice in the poem, ‘The Runway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’. Parry (74) asserts that during this time slavery was based on race and Africans were the main victims. As a result, slaves were subjected to racial injustice and harsh labor. The poet shows a female African slave who is running away to escape the agony and pain of slavery. The fact that this woman shouts that she is black throughout the poem shows that she is being mistreated because of her skin color. She is ashamed of bearing a child with her oppressive master. As result of sexual exploitation and brutality of the slave system, this slave murders her child who she thinks he is far too white for her. This means that she views the child’s face as a reflection of the faces of her oppressors. Browning explicitly condemns this brutal system that causes immense human suffering. Just like Blake, Browning is opposed to the established religions that seem to collude with slave masters. Throughout the poem, Browning brings out subjects and issues that women were encountering as slaves. Slavery and rape are such issues that Browning uses to communicate about the oppression of women. In this regard, Browning seeking justice and equality for all.
Moreover, Blade and Browning employ the race factor in their poems to explain the injustices witnessed in the society. For instance, Blake acknowledges racial discrimination in the poem, ‘The Little Black Boy’. As shown in the first stanza, black color is viewed as inferior to white. Blake reiterates in the poem, “But I am black as if bereaved of light” (38). The speaker in the poem associates the black color with darkness while associating white with angels. Blake seems to question racial discrimination that is prevalent in the society through Christian values. He uses irony to show that the white lack faith despite their superiority in relation to skin color. Blacks are shown to be closer to God because they can bear the sun’s heat. However, Blake is only trying to show that the black skin stigma can be eliminated although this requires patience. He says, “for when our souls have learned the heat to bear, the cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice” (77). In this regard, Blake shows that racial differences can be celebrated if all people despite their race can appreciate the God’s love for all. The little black boy in the poem is experiencing spiritual awakening by understanding his status in the society when both the white and black stand before God.
Similarly, Browning points out that racial differences explain the brutality witnessed during the Victorian era. Browning uses poetry to challenge the Victorian era which had no regard for women. The poet expresses her concerns on how black women were sexually assaulted during this era. The slave woman in the poem is undergoing an internal conflict after being raped by her master. It is out of this turmoil the slave woman murders her child because he was a descendant of the race that was oppressing them. Although she believes everyone is a child of God, she barely reconciles her situations with the reality of slavery. Browning shows the hypocrisy of the white people who visited African states to spearhead freedom of the black race through missionary work and eventually establishing slavery institutions to oppress them. This is why the speaker in the poem finds her Christian belief that all people are God’s inconsistent with the brutality, cruelty, and abuse experienced by slaves. According to the speaker, it seems their creator abandoned them to be oppressed by their white counterparts. She says that “but if he did so, smiling back he must have cast away his work under the feet of his white creatures…” (Browning). This is ironical because dark practices are treated as good.
Although Blake and Browning had similarities in the ways they expressed their concerns regarding the social injustices prevalent during their lifetimes, it is worth noting that they also differed in the ways they represented their concerns. Issues raised by Blake were mainly driven by his radical nature of constructing ideal forms from inner individual visions. On the other hand, Browning believed that inner individual visions and observations from nature are paramount when constructing ideal forms. It is possible to see Blake’s intuitive thoughts in his poems as compared to Browning’s works. Most of Blake’s poems address the topic of class oppression and exploitation of the weak members of the society (Bentley 93). This shows that his ideologies were championed towards an equal society, which are closely linked to Marxist theories of an equalitarian society. In addition, Blake shows that divine virtues are essential in getting relief from distress. He asserts that all people should possess divine virtues such as love, mercy, and peace irrespective of their race or religion in order to manage distress in an unequal society. On the contrary, Browning was more focused on the abolition of slavery and oppression of the weak in the society as a way of relieving the oppressed from distress. In other words, her writings were greatly inspired by the oppressive practices common in the Victorian era.
Bentley, G. “The stranger from paradise: A biography of William Blake.” (2001).
Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Place of publication not identified: Filiquarian Pub, 2007. Print.
Blake, William. The Chimney Sweeper. Taurus Press, 1969.
Browning, Elizabeth B. The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point. London: Edward Moxon, 1849. Print.
Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Parry, Ann. “Sexual Exploitation and Freedom: Religion, Race, and Gender in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s’ The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,’.” Studies in Browning and her Circle 16 (1988): 114-126.